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Geist (German pronunciation: [ˈɡaɪst]) is a German word. Depending on context it can be translated as the English words mind, spirit, or ghost, covering the semantic field of these three English nouns. Some English translators resort to using "spirit/mind" or "spirit (mind)" to help convey the meaning of the term.[1][2]

Geist is a central concept in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit (Phänomenologie des Geistes).

Etymology and translation

Edmund Spenser's usage of the English-language word 'ghost', in his 1590 The Faerie Queene, demonstrates the former, broader meaning of the English-language term. In this context, the term describes the sleeping mind of a living person, rather than a ghost, or spirit of the dead. The word Geist is etymologically identical to the English ghost (from a Common Germanic *gaistaz) but has retained its full range of meanings, while some applications of the English word ghost had become obsolete by the 17th century, replaced with the Latinate spirit.[3] For this reason, English-language translators of the term Geist from the German language face some difficulty in rendering the term, and often disagree as to the best translation in a given context.

Analogous terms in other languages include the Ancient Greek word πνεῦμα (pneuma), the Latin spiritus, the French esprit and the Sanskrit प्राण prana.


Geist is a central concept in Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit (Phänomenologie des Geistes). According to Hegel, the Weltgeist ("world spirit") is not an actual object or a transcendental, Godlike thing, but a means of philosophizing about history.[citation needed] Weltgeist is effected in history through the mediation of various Volksgeister ("national spirits"), the great men of history, such as Napoleon, are the "concrete universal".[citation needed]

This has led some to claim that Hegel favored the great man theory, although his philosophy of history, in particular concerning the role of the "universal state" (Universalstaat, which means a universal "order" or "statute" rather than "state"), and of an "End of History" is much more complex.

For Hegel, the great hero is unwittingly utilized by Geist or absolute spirit, by a "ruse of reason" as he puts it, and is irrelevant to history once his historic mission is accomplished; he is thus subjected to the teleological principle of history, a principle which allows Hegel to reread the history of philosophy as culminating in his philosophy of history.

Weltgeist, the world spirit concept, designates an idealistic principle of world explanation, which can be found from the beginnings of philosophy up to more recent time. The concept of world spirit was already accepted by the idealistic schools of ancient Indian philosophy, whereby one explained objective reality as its product. (See metaphysical objectivism) In the early philosophy of Greek antiquity, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all paid homage, amongst other things, to the concept of world spirit. Hegel later based his philosophy of history on it.


Geist is a component of several German loanwords such as Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time or collective unconscious, and poltergeist, the mischievous ghosts that are believed to make noises.

In Christian theology, the term Heiliger Geist (heilig = holy) is the German equivalent of Holy Spirit; in Catholic and Lutheran liturgies is also the equivalent to lat. spiritus in the liturgical greeting "Et cum spiritu tuo", Und mit deinem Geiste.

Geisteskrank is a German word meaning "mentally ill".

Geistlos means 'mindless' or 'without spirit'.

See also


  1. C. Marvin Pate. From Plato to Jesus: What Does Philosophy Have to Do with Theology?. 2011, page 69
  2. Rosenkranz, Karl. Hegel, as the national philosopher of Germany. 1874, page 85
  3. As observed by Alexander Gil, The sacred philosophy of the holy scripture: laid down... in... the apostles (1635): "The word Ghost in English [...] is as much as athem, or breath; in our new Latin language, a Spirit." Spenser in 1590 could still say No knight so rude, I weene, As to doen outrage to a sleeping ghost (Faerie Queene II. viii. 26), by "sleeping ghost" referring to the sleeping mind of a living person, not the ghost of a deceased one.


External links